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Manchester's Charter Commission Election: All About The Schools

On Tuesday, Manchester voters will pick nine names from a list of 62 candidates vying to serve on the city’s charter commission. And public education is a central issue.It felt a little like speed dating at a recent meet and greet for charter commission candidates.

“Albert Jernigan, running for charter commission.” ... “My name is Ed Doyle. I’m running for charter commission.” ... “My name is Larry Gangne, I’m a state representative here from Manchester.” ... “Maurice Pilotte. I’m a lifelong resident in Manchester.”

About 30 potential commissioners sat at tables talking with Manchester residents. The recently formed advocacy group, Citizens for Manchester Schools, put together the event.

Once voters choose the nine commissioners, they’ll work to rewrite what is essentially the constitution of the city. The proposals delivered by the commission in its final report next June will be placed on the municipal ballot the following November.

Brad Cook served on the last two charter commissions. He says that months of haggling, research and compromise will turn into a single, city-wide, up-down vote on the revised charter, so commissioners often have to strike a balanced approach.

“So, if you come up with silly ideas, or you come up with extreme ideas, the charter that you fashion isn’t likely to pass.”

Cook says extreme ideas spelled the demise of the 2003 charter commission.

“You don’t want the whole thing to go down the shoots because of one poison pill.”

The last charter revision to pass a city-wide vote was in 1996. The revision made municipal elections non-partisan and added two at-large seats to both the school board and the board of mayor and aldermen.

This time, the Manchester School District has taken the center stage. Candidates are discussing ways to improve the budget process, the school district’s autonomy and the mayor’s role as board chair.

There are at least three candidates who are also members of Citizens for Manchester Schools. They actively protested last year’s budget cuts to the school district.

Another candidate is a recently laid off teacher. David Scannell is a prominent Democrat, and a graduate of Central High.

And he isn’t a fan of the city’s new tax cap. The cap limits tax and spending increases to match the urban consumer price index. Manchester voters passed the cap in 2009, but state law didn’t allow its implementation until last year.

“I propose sort of a middle ground there. I think the tax cap has really led us to the point that we are at, however, because people have voted for it and voted for it very recently, I also look at any effort to get rid of the tax cap entirely as another poison pill.”

Instead, Scannell says, he would propose making it easier for the aldermen to override the tax cap by removing the supermajority requirement.

Many conservatives are running in an effort to preserve the tax cap.

Rich Girard is a well-known Republican radio personality and a graduate of West High. He says any effort against the tax cap is an effort against the Manchester voter.

“Frankly if there was any political support in the city of Manchester for an overriding or a weakening or a dismissal of that tax cap, then the aldermen would not have cowered when it came to the question of whether or not they should override the tax cap.”

Girard’s platform in this race for charter commissioner is emblematic of most conservatives’. He wants to see the school district become a city department and he says the schools’ recent budget problems are not a byproduct of underfunding.  

The other 60 candidates running for charter commission are not all toeing the party line, however. Several of them are technocrats, first-time politicians, or moderates. Sifting through their diverse proposals will prove difficult for the average voter. It may mean, like many past charter commission elections, the well-known names end up having the edge.

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